As the western world battles deadly waves of coronavirus, the first cases have been reported in Syria where hundreds of thousands of refugees are crammed into makeshift camps and bombed-out houses near the Turkish border. Neighboring Iraq is nearing a thousand cases, with the virus almost sure to spread to prisons packed with ISIS detainees and camps where Iraqis displaced by the militants are still afraid to go home.
Across the world’s conflict zones, health care workers and citizens now face the overlapping frontlines of war and the global coronavirus pandemic. Trying to stay ahead of the virus’ spread, the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has made an emergency appeal to donor countries to come up with $823 million in new aid to fight the virus in some of world’s most vulnerable countries.
The Red Cross Red Crescent movement includes the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was founded to provide neutral assistance to all sides in any conflict and to advocate for the laws of war enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC’s neutrality and strict confidentiality allow it to communicate with authoritarian leaders and jihadi militants, deliver aid, pass letters from detainees to loved ones, and quietly remind governments when they are failing to follow international laws of war.
Now, the group finds itself trying to help those actors brace for the impact of a disease that has brought the world’s richest nations to a grinding halt. ICRC President Peter Maurer, speaking to TIME from his home in Geneva on April 3, described how health-care systems in nations like Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan that are already damaged by conflict are unprepared for the ravages of COVID 19. In most countries, ICRC has seen no let-up in fighting, and many of the prison systems the group monitors are also at risk, too crowded to keep the virus from spreading, and too cash poor to provide protective equipment to prisoners or those working there.
Where is more aid to fight COVID-19 most needed?
We see the greatest needs in those 15 to 20 active conflicts in which we are operating….We have seen that health systems were made particularly fragile — by conflict, by bombardment of health facilities, by restrictions of health workers in the field — and now we see that those health facilities are overburdened with preparedness and prevention.
Have you seen armed groups and governments responding in a positive way to the pandemic?
Unfortunately, I must say that in most of the conflict theatres in which we are operating, despite COVID 19, we have not seen a fundamental change. In many places, combat operations go on. In the last three weeks, we had more than 180 war wounded treated in South Sudan. What is valid for South Sudan is valid for so many other conflict theatres: combat operations continue.
Are you still able to access prisoners in the countries where you work?
The detention facilities are those places where the social distancing is the most complex. We try to find pragmatic solutions, building on our experience with previous pandemics, in particular Ebola, where we have quite successfully kept away Ebola from the some of the detention facilities.
We are really looking with each and every prison we are visiting to prepare contingency planning: isolation rooms for potential prisoners who get the coronavirus, hygiene practices, fresh water supply and sanitation measures.
We are looking at the interaction between guards and detainees, and how to ensure that guards do not bring (in the virus), and have the necessary precautionary measures in place in order to prevent an outbreak of the pandemic within the detention facilities. We are looking at resupplying the health centers within detention facilities in which we operate in order to have the necessary tools and instruments.
Many prison directors, which may be reluctant in the past, are more forthcoming today in working with us to engage in some of these preventive measures. This is an encouraging sign that…the seriousness of the situation potentially is getting to those governments.
How are ICRC workers protecting themselves and making sure they don’t spread the virus?
We have instituted heavy precautionary protocols similar to what nurses and doctors do in hospitals. We wear protective gear wherever it is necessary and available…and hand washing and distancing, and wherever protective masks are necessary, or where authorities and governments have come to conclusion that this is the policy, we try to comply. So we are trying to do our best.
Why do many authoritarian regimes cooperate with the ICRC?
When I look at our practice… confidentially engaging in advising, offering our support, giving suggestions to respective for authorities, is an approach which manages to establish a certain trust with authorities and gives us the possibility to access populations and regions which other agencies don’t have.
If we would start public advocacy and tell the broader public what we see in 100 countries in which we visit detainees today, we most likely wouldn’t be able to visit those detainees. It doesn’t mean that the public shouldn’t eventually know. But our methodology is to create that space of professionalism and professional advice which we can give to governments and hopefully create a space in which these governments also can make concessions, which they wouldn’t easily do in a public space and under public pressure.
The United States is the ICRC’s biggest donor, but the Trump administration has just cut a billion dollars of aid to Afghanistan, one of the countries on your appeal list. What impact could that have as COVID-19 starts hitting the country?
We hope that we can maintain our program in Afghanistan. It’s of critical importance as a humanitarian program. It’s one of our top priorities worldwide. It is of course, to the discretion of each and every government on whether they want to finance this or that operation. …We need to fast track, increase and deploy now, thoroughly our preparedness and preparation measures in order to prevent COVID-19 to spread into the most fragile contexts, including Afghanistan.
What do you think the lasting impact could be to societies ravaged by this disease?
It is most likely that the world will look in many respects different, after a longer stretch of pandemic policy restrictions and…disruption of the economy. I think political leadership will be in high demand to give direction at the international level as to how to respond to those challenges. I think it’s still unforeseeable. Some fear more authoritarian, more restrictive governance. Others hope that the present challenge will also open to more intense and multilateral and multi-stakeholder cooperation.
Are you worried that everyone will turn inward, focused on helping themselves and not helping the rest of the world?
I’m worried. But after a week of quite intense discussion with a lot of ministers around the world, I’m also comforted to a certain extent to realize that many leaders recognize that this is a global problem needing global responses…I see initiatives emerging which look at bringing the international community in a more coherent and coordinated way together. The multi-stakeholder, multi-national cooperation is still alive.
How have donors responded since you launched your appeal?
Well, it’s a little bit early to see whether the money is coming in. I think we have seen some governments coming forward with a clear willingness to support. We hope that through the year, not only the United States but others will continue to finance generously the work of the ICRC.…Of course, our ambition is always that all the 196 signatories of the Geneva Convention… (are) contributing. We have 30 countries at the present moment who come up for more than 85% of all our budget. We hope that we can increase the number of countries who have an ability and a readiness to support our budget. We appeal to donors not to wait. It’s now that we can make a difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.